On the NBC comedy Joey, star Matt LeBlanc plays a struggling actor who lives in constant fear of unemployment. Last week, for instance, Joey got his hands on an advance script for his latest project, a Baywatch-type series set in a ski resort, and became frantic that the writers were about to ax his character.
Joey might not be the only one whose job is on the line. A spinoff of Friends, one of the biggest comedy hits ever, Joey is on a downhill slide. The show has been shedding viewers fairly consistently since its Sept. 9 premiere, particularly among its target audience of young adults.
The producers are scrambling this month to improve scripts and beef up the cast with special guests, such as Charlie's Angels star Lucy Liu, who's shot three episodes and may do more. But Joey suffers a problem common to many spinoffs - the inevitable comparison to the show that preceded it.
It's also struggling for traction during one of the worst seasons ever for scripted comedy.
NBC likes to point out that Joey is the top-rated new comedy this year, but that's not saying much. The competition includes marginal shows such as ABC's Rodney, CBS' Listen Up and Center of the Universe and NBC's already-canceled Father of the Pride. Fox's decision to move its hot youth soap The O.C. to Thursday is likely pulling away viewers as well.
Whatever the cause, Joey's weakness is creating new headaches at NBC. It was counting on the sitcom to stay competitive on Thursday night, when movie studios and other advertisers shell out top dollar for airtime. The show's low ratings were one of the main reasons NBC lost its dominance among young adults - with CBS taking the lead - in last month's sweeps, which helps set ad rates for local stations.
NBC Entertainment President Kevin Reilly noted that its creative pedigree gives Joey an extra hurdle to clear in terms of perception. "Were Joey not a Friends spinoff, it would be called an unequivocal hit," he said. "But being held to the standard of a Friends spinoff, it somehow seems as if it's underperforming."
More than 18 million viewers watched the premiere, but recent episodes have lured fewer than 12 million viewers, according to figures from Nielsen Media Research. The series' main rival, CBS' Survivor: Vanuatu, averages 19.6 million viewers.
Among adults ages 18 to 49, Joey is down 43 percent compared with the viewership Friends drew last year during the same 8 p.m. Thursday slot.
Still, NBC has ordered a full season's worth of 24 episodes (11 have aired). So Joey has plenty of time to improve before executives decide which shows to renew in the spring.
But it's not just Joey that's stumbling. Sitcom producers are having a tough time making viewers laugh this fall.
With a few exceptions, such as CBS' Two and a Half Men, existing comedies are struggling as much as the new shows. Meanwhile, two new ABC dramas, Desperate Housewives and Lost, are getting the kind of media attention once reserved for sitcoms like Seinfeld.
The numbers for Joey prove that "it's still very difficult in this era to launch a sitcom on network TV," said Brad Adgate, senior vice president at New York-based Horizon Media.
NBC isn't giving up, though.
Reilly said Joey viewers could expect more appearances by stars like Liu, as well as an expanded ensemble, in the coming weeks.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.